In my forties, I attended university to study theology. I expected to take that study and extend it beyond the walls of the classrooms. I had big dreams. The broader world would be my laboratory. I would find new ways to speak about what I learned – beyond the limits of theology in the classroom. I don’t want to be defined by one religious tradition, which means being open to diverse expressions. Many years down the road, I’ve experienced equal parts excitement and frustration in communicating what I am learning.
Lots of metaphors come to mind, but the best one for me is the fishbowl. What if we think of every religion as a fishbowl? Each one is a small world. The fish in the bowl can study the world they live in as a world of shared meanings, values, beliefs and hopes. Everyone in their world communicates using the same imagery, motifs, themes and stories because they are gleaned from their experience of living in their small world. All fields of study encounter this limitation unless they are able to grow their language and culture by venturing beyond what are assumed to be the limits of their fields.
Every once in a while, as it happens, some naughty fish will cast its gaze outward, beyond the confines of the fish bowl and wonder, “What’s out there?” Well, what’s out there is, in some very important ways, not what is in there. If we leave the bowl, we are truly fish out of water. What is in the bowl has the pressure of definition pressed upon it by the container itself as well as by those who revere it precisely as a container. The fishbowl world is “contained,” and is therefore a finite context for exploration and exploitation. The world is limited enough that it can be precisely catalogued, evaluated, analyzed, sorted, labeled and, perhaps most importantly, owned and controlled.
But what if that fish was to escape the confines of the bowl and be thrust into the world beyond in something of a “Plato’s Cave” moment? Of course, at first that fish would experience panic. What if it’s impossible to live outside the bowl? The myths of monsters that lurk in that great beyond, ready to devour and spit out anything that is not protected by the bowl, may be true. But, what if the fish had sufficient doubt about these dangers, so that it was inspired to take the risk? What would or might or could happen to such a fish?
The fishbowl metaphor is a way of expressing my experience of – well – trying to think outside the bowl. Life outside the conventional world of religious conversation is an adventure. People want to talk about God, religion, faith, spirituality, truth and ethics. They have strong opinions, criticism, and suggestions that matter. What they don’t want is for the terms of the conversation to be dictated by particular kinds of language, doctrines, taboos, images, dogma or doctrinal statements. They actually want to talk about “their” experiences and they want to put their stories forth in their own ways.
These days, it’s increasingly important to have these conversations. Religion seems to be falling short in meeting people where they are. So say the statistics, anyway. While I can’t really speak for people in the fishbowl anymore, people outside the bowl are frightened, anxious, depressed and angry about the realities they are encountering and it’s fascinating to hear how and where they are finding inspiration. There are no limits to the ways that the themes of hope and liberation can be expressed as responses to the realities we face. We can engage one another and learn from our encounters. We can create responses that result in a better world.
We just have to be careful not to create a bigger fishbowl.